A few months ago, Andrew Owen wrote a post I really liked about sequences of street names that occur throughout the Twin Cities. It was surprising to see the extent of the repeating alphabetical sequences.
As the post suggested, one of the primary benefits of street names occurring in ordered sequences is that it greatly assists navigation. On ordered systems, the name of the street also tells you its location. We also generally assign address numbers based on geographic rules. In some cases, hearing a street address alone can tell you how to navigate to the property without the need to consult a map.
Andy Sturdevant took it one step further and wrote a post entitled House Numbers back in 2010 about what you can learn about house based only on the street number. I’ve posted an exerpt below, though you should click through to read it in its entirety.
Cozy. One imagines a walk-up brownstone, or a row of brownstone walk-ups. A short walk to the bodega, or party store, or news agent, or corner shop, whatever you call it where you live. Probably hard to find parking in the immediate area. You’d likely have to walk a few blocks. Historic preservation markers may be nearby.
Likely on a long, looping street named for a tree, or a miles-long two-lane with a name like “Airport Way” or “Frontage Road.” You cannot catch a bus to an address with five digits. You’ll have to drive, and you’ll have to drive for a long time. Way out past the proving grounds and the wildlife management area. One imagines absolute silence.
Some ordered street systems are more intuitive than others, and I think it a positive benefit for city navigation to be intuitive. Numbered sequences are easy enough, as are letters. Beyond this, orders become less memorable. Presidential names are a common convention, though less useful since most of us can’t list all of the presidents in order and some are certainly more obscure than others (quick, name one thing about President Arthur!). Tree names are also common, though there is no clear way to order trees that will mean anything to most people.
You don’t need a map to get around a place like South Minneapolis. The dominance of the gridded Avenues and Streets each more or less following numbered order makes navigating to an unknown address relatively simple. I still haven’t figured out if there is a convention to name the Street or the Avenue first when identifying a street corner in Minneapolis (is Riverview Theater at 38th and 42nd, or 42nd and 38th?). But given a random address in South Minneapolis, most people could generally find it without a map. A lake or two may get in the way, but the numbers lead you there.
As Andrew pointed out, intuitive grids need not be limited by municipality either. Even a cursory browsing of Google Maps tells me that the numbered grid beginning at Washington Avenue in downtown Minneapolis extends at least 52 miles north to 421st Avenue near Braham, MN, though certainly Its usefulness is questionable as the grid is sufficiently sparse.
In Salt Lake City, UT, addresses are literally given as Cartesian coordinates. A typical address may be 620 E 200 S (meaning, just over six blocks east and two blocks south of the iconic Latter-day Saint Temple marking the center). Indeed, the predominant grid system throughout downtown Salt Lake with massive square blocks measuring 800 feet per side has resulted in numerous properties landlocked in the middle of the blocks that don’t readily face any street in particular. The coordinates for these properties are adjusted based on their x,y position rather than street frontage location. Maps are not necessary here.
In a circular city, addresses could be given by polar coordinates, either utilizing a street address, or simply a distance and angle from the origin (bonus points if the residents use radians). New Orleans is one of my favorite cities loosely based on a radial design, though the street names follow no patterns whatsoever as near as I can tell. Black Rock City, NV, the annual site of the Burning Man Festival, is organized using polar coordinates of sorts, with the radials identified as time on a clock (there is probably a name for this). Circular neighborhoods within cities are common as well, perhaps typified by Sun City, AZ, though the design or naming conventions are not helpful for navigation in the slightest.
And then there are spherical coordinates. Latitude and longitude is well established, and Google Maps can already map this about as well as it can map a street address. But if we’re headed this direction, we may as well go full-on nerd and use genuine spherical coordinates. If we had better (more affordable) instruments, we could do away with street addresses and rely entirely on this. An added bonus is that we would no longer have to specify floor numbers in multi-floor buildings, as the spherical address would already specify elevation. But this is functionally absurd and would create more problems than it would ever solve (though I do think that an easy way of identifying the elevation of an address is useful information, particularly for cyclists or pedestrians that don’t want to walk or bike up a massive hill if they don’t need to).
And then some addresses do nothing at all to help you navigate to them. In some areas, street names do not convey any useful information, and addresses are assigned seemingly just to annoy Mr. Sturdevant by making sure everyone has a similar sounding four-digit address. An address like 1528 Maplefield Path tells you nothing about where this might be located. It conjures a mental image of a quietly winding residential cul-de-sac in an affluent suburban neighborhood, but you would almost certainly need to consult a map to get there. In the old days, even having a map wasn’t always particularly helpful, as it was difficult to find the street you were looking for on the map. Map makers began including alphabetized lists of street names along with a grid overlay system to help users find the roadways on the map. Of course, with digital and mobile mapping becoming ubiquitous, this problem is nearly extinct.
While the engineer in me appreciates the order that comes along with intuitive cities, I also acknowledge that some of my favorite places to visit are not the slightest bit intuitive in terms of roadway names or alignments (especially older European cities). In fact, it’s the seeming lack of organization that makes them charming and interesting. Yet, somehow these complex places are easier for me to navigate than some local suburban neighborhoods around the Metro. The trick, I guess, is figuring out how to make cities intuitive without making them boring or monotonous.